I went to see a new play this weekend, a respectable work a friend of mine was in. The cast, while largely amateurs, were talented people with respectable acting resumes. It was an enjoyable afternoon.
Still, I left the theater wondering whether a different cast would have erased some of my concerns about the play.
The play, in parts, was a little more about telling than about showing. The good news is that the telling was pretty interesting (which doesn’t mean that it was the best choice dramatically-speaking). But I couldn’t help but wonder if greater connection between the characters might have made me less concerned about this aspect of the play.
I actually have greater success working with new actors than I do with actors who have experience, because actors assume that because they have done ten plays, they are good at what they do. Why would they continue to be cast if they weren’t?
Why? Because they audition better than everyone else. Or because while they are still falling short, they have enough natural talent that, in community theater, they are still better than the competition.
Don’t get me wrong — there are some FABULOUS actors in community theater. I grew up in NJ community theater and can attest to that. And the people in the show this past weekend are all talented actors. But being a talented actor doesn’t mean you know how to make the best use of your talent.
And unfortunately, talented actors who don’t know how to make the best use of their talent will resist the notion that they have something to learn until something causes them to wake up. For me, back in the days when I was a young actor going to professional auditions, it was a callback audition where I felt outclassed by the competition. Finally, I had encountered people who not only were more skilled than I was, but who I was willing to acknowledge were better than I was. For me, in that moment, the obvious question was, “How do I get to be that good?” (And the obvious answer was, go to school.)
But okay, not everyone is ready to do that. FIne.
It has do with pacing.
Directors usually harp on their actors to “pick up the pace.” With good reason; actors can be self-indulgent. The trick, as an actor, is to tread the fine line between feeling connected to the moment and keeping the play moving.
Rehearsing is breaking the scene down into slower moments so you can get in touch with what is going on emotionally, and then speeding up that experience as much as you can while staying connected to the emotion as well as your scene partners.
The problem comes in that most actors are doing the serious work on these moments at home, without anyone to disturb them. As a result, the work becomes a solo act, not a scene between two characters. Each actor walks into the rehearsal room with some pre-conceived ideas about what should be happening in this scene. And that is where the scene stays, for them.
It looks pretty good. And it sounds pretty good. It really does. But the problem is that there is nothing really happening between actors (and therefore the characters) onstage. So the story is well told, but no one’s heart is moved. In order to move an audience emotionally, you must directly connect with your scene partner and let the audience join in that connection.
That connection comes in the spaces between the words. Pacing is all well and good, but when the spaces are full of emotion, they don’t slow down the play. Too often, I see good actors rushing through a scene.
To connect with your scene partner in a way that electrifies an audience means listening to and receiving the emotions your scene partner is sending your way. Really receiving and reacting only to what you receive. And vice versa. It means living those spaces, not speeding through them at 70 mph.
This is why I ask all my actors to do the Mystery Play exercise. It forces the actor to listen and react. If you’re paying attention, you can clearly understand the difference between what you’ve been doing and what really moves an audience, and why rushing, no matter how well orchestrated, is insufficient.